Tuesday, December 22, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 3

We're in the home stretch now. Here are the final fifteen of the best things I ate in 2015. Still hungry? Check out part 1 and part 2, and you can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set. This final group splits time between Miami and Northern California, starting with what was, for me, one of the most unexpectedly exciting – and unfortunately, short-lived – restaurants that opened (and closed) here in 2015.

Once again, despite the title, this makes no claim as being the "best" of anything other than the things I had the good fortune to eat over the past year. There are oodles of intriguing new restaurants just in South Florida that I've not yet made it to, or only started to get to know, much less the broader dining universe out there. These appear in roughly chronological order.

Gordita, Haitian Griots and Pikliz, Cotija, Raw Vegan Verde - Centro Taco (Downtown Miami) (see all my pictures from Centro Taco)

This Mexican-Haitian mash-up was darn near perfect: a crisp, corn-y masa shell filled with tender, burnished-edged fried pork, a tangy, spicy cabbage slaw, a dollop of salsa verde and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Before my first visit, I was by no means convinced that Miami needed another taco shop. But it can always use more like this. (I guess I was wrong – Centro Taco closed after only a couple months, but Chef Richard Hales is looking to reopen in another spot. I hope that happens soon.)

Cape Canaveral Prawns, Tajin Crust, Grits, Mole Verde, Lime Crema, Huitlacoche - Alter (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter)

I found another favorite dish on a visit to Alter in August: the tajin-crusted Cape Canaveral prawns, strewn over a bed of creamy corn grits lashed with stripes of mole verde, lime crema, and huitlacoche. It's a beautiful combination – like a next-generation Mexican shrimp 'n' grits – but what really elevates it is the quality of those prawns, tender and juicy underneath their chile and citrus coating, their heads bursting with oceanic goodness when chewed or squeezed.

Caviar, Smoked Oil Poached Egg, Creme Fraiche; Celtuce, Just Dug Potatoes, Comté, Burnt Hay, Tarragon; Musk Melon, Coconut, Lemon Flavors - Coi (San Francisco) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Coi)

Here are three dishes from a meal at Daniel Patterson's restaurant Coi, shortly after the chef announced that he would stepping out of the kitchen at the end of the year. He's bringing in a wonderful chef to take over – Matthew Kirkley, who served me a great meal at Chicago's L2O late last year – but I'm glad to have had a chance to experience Patterson's cooking at Coi. From Patterson's book:
Coi is part of a well-established tradition of restaurants that serve expensive tasting menus. We are mindful of that history, but there are some aspects of an haute cuisine dining experience that feel more symbolic than heartfelt, like building the menu around a procession of luxury ingredients. Products like truffles and caviar are expensive, but they aren't hard to find or challenging to prepare. They don't carry any particular emotional value for me, just the wan connotation of a bygone era when waiters wore white gloves. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not how I cook.
Well, sometimes exceptions can be made. I, for one, would never turn down this mound of caviar, served over a poached egg yolk nestled next to some silky creme fraiche sprinkled with chives. Again there's another little surprise: the gooey yolk has been imbued with the flavor of the smoked oil in which it was poached, the combination of roe and smoke bringing to mind the grill-smoked caviar served by Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri.

Another dish from the Coi "greatest hits" collection. The primary ingredient is celtuce, featured both in thickly sliced discs and thin ribbons of its stalk. It has the hearty snap of a broccoli stem, and a delicately bittersweet flavor somewhere in the neighborhood of lettuce, celery and asparagus. Freshly dug potatoes are cooked until just tender, and crowned with caps of nutty, buttery melted comté cheese. These sit over an oil blackened with powdered burnt hay. Those black and charred aromas are brought back to green and fresh by a few wispy leaves of tarragon. "Coi" is an archaic French word meaning "quiet," and Patterson's cooking voice can be quiet, subtle, understated. Sometimes you have to listen closely. If you do so, in this dish maybe you'll hear something that sounds like a field of grass blown by the wind, with all these variations on the vegetal tastes of the pasture.

Then the next bite soothes. Gorgeously fragrant, sweet cubes of musk melon swim in a soup of their juices, intermingled with lemon flavors (something herbaceous here: lemon verbena?) and topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. It's simple. And stunning.

(continued ...)

Royal Trumpets, Fava Mayo, Green Peach and Pluot Relish; Stone Fruit Curry, Black Lime Cod, Green Bean, BlueberryAl's Place (San Francisco) (see all my pictures from Al's Place)

I never got around to writing about our meal at Al's Place in San Francisco; then Bon Appetit kind of stole my thunder, naming it the best new restaurant in the country about a week after my visit. I'm in no position to make any such pronouncement, which I think by its nature is kind of absurd. But I'll also say that the food we had at Al's Place was some of the most interesting, and delicious, I've had all year. Chef Aaron London (who had taken over Napa's now-closed Ubuntu after Jeremy Fox's departure) cooks primarily vegetable-forward, though not necessarily vegetarian, dishes, from which he has an incredible knack for extracting a broad range of intense flavors.

A dish of cool royal trumpet mushrooms doesn't seem like it would be that exciting. But those mushrooms are plump and almost meaty, slivered green beans pop with freshness, a fava bean mayo looks and tastes as green as the field where the Teletubbies play, and a green peach and pluot relish adds a dash of sweet-tart tang.

A stone fruit curry with black lime cod, green beans and blueberries is a combination of ingredients that sounds absolutely implausible, but tastes absolutely delicious. The tangy broth tastes more like a Thai tom yum than a curry to me, but it somehow makes perfect sense with the other components: the dead-ripe fruit is the feature element, the slivers of black lime dusted cod are more garnish than star.

Alaskan Sockeye "Pickled" in Dashi with Nori, Avocado and Cucumber; Potato-Sauerkraut Dumplings with Flavor King Plum PreservesThe Progress (San Francisco) (see all my pictures from The Progress)

I have an odd knack for front-running the BA "best restaurant" selection: in 2012, one of my favorite meals was at State Bird Provisions, which, like Al's Place this year, got the nod only a few days after our visit. Chef/owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski opened a second restaurant this year, The Progress, and it was one of my favorite meals of 2015. Part of the fun at State Bird is the dim sum style cart service, with small dishes wheeled around the dining room to choose from. The Progress has its own gimmick: a "choose your own adventure" menu, where each table chooses six items from among about 18 possibilities, all of which are served family style. A couple standouts from a great meal:

This combination – salmon, avocado, cucumber – ran the risk of being nebbish. It was far from it. The fish, still glistening and raw in the center, was just barely seared on its edges and then "pickled" (brined might be more accurate) in dashi, those glutamates extracting and enhancing its flavor. Ribbons of soft nori echoed the aquatic theme, odd-shaped nubs of cucumber added a fresh verdant complementary note, and a creamy avocado sauce lent  just enough richness to pull everything together.

These dumplings are what every pierogi wants to be when it grows up. Filled with creamy potato and tangy sauerkraut, encased in a wrapper that's golden-crispy in spots and tender-chewy in others like a good gyoza, nestled in a pillow of frothy cream and paired with bright, tangy plum preserves.

Charred Snap Peas, Enoki Mushrooms, Smoked Macadamia NutStone & Embers (Philo, CA) (see all my pictures from Stone & Embers)

I didn't have very high expectations when looking for a lunch stop while heading from San Francisco to Mendocino by way of the Anderson Valley. But Stone & Embers turned out to be one of the best meals we had in the area. The restaurant is inside The Madrones, which also houses a small, luxurious B&B and a few wine tasting rooms, and serves lunch only, Friday through Monday. The abbreviated menu consists of five choices of pizzas and an equal number of small plates, almost all of which pass through the wood-burning oven.

The pizzas were very good; the other dishes we tried were excellent, including crisp, airy mushroom "chicharrones" (puffed tapioca chips) dusted with porcini salt and parmesan cheese, and a gorgeous plate of root vegetables with garam masala and pumpkin seeds. But my favorite were these fresh, flavorful snap peas charred in the wood oven, garnished with wispy enoki nushrooms, and served with a frothy, creamy smoked macadamia nut sauce. This place is a true hidden gem.

Uni Nigiri – Taka's Japanese Grill (Fort Bragg, CA) (see all my pictures from Taka's Grill)

After that fantastic uni dish at Saison, I got it stuck in my head that I wanted to see where that sea urchin came from. When I checked a map, I saw that Fort Bragg was along the coast just north of Anderson Valley, where some of my favorite pinot noirs come from. And a trip agenda came together.

Taka's Grill in Fort Bragg is by no means an exceptional restaurant. But there is something special about it: many of their products, including salmon, albacore tuna, and – yes – that uni, come directly from the local waters. So while the knife work may not have been the most graceful I've ever seen, that Fort Bragg uni made Taka's a worthwhile visit.

Grilled Carrots, Hazelnuts, 5-Year Gouda, BuckwheatEating House (Coral Gables) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Eating House)

Vegetable-focused dishes are a strong suit at Eating House lately, and of these, my favorite was a plate of grilled carrots, blanketed in soft curls of a powerfully rich five-year aged gouda cheese (it has crystals like a good aged parmigiano-reggiano), dappled with crunchy buckwheat kernels, all resting atop a pillow of a creamy carrot-top pesto. I especially liked that the carrots were not annihilated, but maintained a not-quite-raw but still firm core – so you get both clean, vegetal snap and dark, sweet roasty caramel flavors.

Soft Scrambled Eggs, Fines Herbs, Pecorino, EVOOVagabond Restaurant (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Vagabond)

It doesn't sound like much the way it's listed on the menu: "soft scrambled eggs, fines herbes, pecorino, evoo." It looks like even less: a shallow plate of runny eggs that might have been scooped up from some budget hotel's breakfast buffet.

Don't be fooled. This, from the brunch menu at Alex Chang's Vagabond, is luxurious stuff. The eggs are warmed through but still virtually liquid, barely forming any curds. The texture is like silk, the flavor rich and pure. A few more grace notes: a tangle of fresh herbs, a dusting of salty pecorino cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil to sort of round everything out. I just loved this. And it's only $7.

Guillermo's Taco de ChicaladasTaquiza  (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Taquiza)

Competition was fierce for my favorite bite at the sixth annual P.I.G. (Pork Is Good) fest, but my single favorite bite of the day was "Guillermo's Taco de Chicaladas" from Chef Steve Santana of Taquiza. I learned from masa master Steve that "Guillermo" is Izzy's Oyster chef Will Crandall; I learned from a commenter here that "chicaladas" are the tasty little bits of pork from the bottom of the pot of carnitas. Topped with a roughly chopped salsa and folded into a perfect two-bite sized taquito speckled with chiles de arbol, this was a perfect little package.

Cod Confit a la CatalanaNiu Kitchen (Downtown Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner with Chef Deme Lomas of Niu Kitchen)

Sometimes I will read a dish description and have no clue how it could possibly taste good. This was one of those. The chef was Deme Lomas, the spot was Niu Kitchen, which was playing host to our 58th Cobaya dinner. The dish was cod with dry figs, roasted onions, mustard and honey. Why would anyone put all those sweet things with a piece of fish?

Shows what I know. Here, the residual saltiness of the rehydrated bacalao, all unctuous and shiny, was balanced against the sweetness of the figs and honey; the zing of mustard for a bit of contrast, a nest of golden caramelized onions as a bridge between savory and sweet. The combination of salt cod and honey actually has a long history in Catalan cooking, which is Chef Lomas' focus at Niu Kitchen. Here's Colman Andrews in his book "Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret":
I remember a game I used to play with friends, in younger years, of trying to invent the most unlikely or revolting-sounding food combinations possible – things, I recall, like raw oysters with chocolate sauce and pineapple-clam cake. This dish, I imagine, must sound a bit like one of those to many readers – or at least like some mindless nouvelle (or nova) excess. In fact, though, salt cod with honey is neither nouvelle nor revolting. It's an old Catalan mountain dish, first mentioned in print in the seventeenth century and said to have been an invention of necessity – the union of two easily stored, well-preserved ingredients, eaten together simply to provide a kind of calorie-loading, essential for survival in cold climates during the cropless winter months.
The most exciting dishes can be those you don't expect to work.

I've said it every year, and I mean it every time: thanks to everyone who made 2015 such an enjoyable year - all the chefs, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, bartenders and busboys, all the farmers, fishermen and foragers, all the winemakers, brewers and distillers, all the guinea pigs who supported our Cobaya dining experiments, and all the great people I've had the good fortune to share meals with, both at the table and vicariously through reviews, blogs, tweets and pictures. As my grandfather used to wish us each year: always better, never worse.

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